For four weeks now, Miami fans, reporters and students alike have had one question surrounding the RedHawk football team: Will Gus play?
Tuesday, football fans in Oxford, the MAC and nationwide rejoiced to hear that the ‘Hawks’ redshirt junior signal caller Gus Ragland, would in fact start against the Akron Zips. Even the bettors in Las Vegas took notice, as the line jumped five points in favor of Miami immediately following the news of Ragland’s return breaking.
Early on, Ragland’s value that caused such a ripple effect in the sports world did not appear worthy of a five point change in the line — the Cincinnati native missed on three of his opening four passes, with his fourth being picked off by Akron redshirt junior Shawn Featherstone.
“The first pass was a lousy throw,” RedHawk fourth-year head coach Chuck Martin said of his quarterback’s early turnover. “That’s as bad of a throw as I’ve seen Gus ever make.”
Ragland himself also reiterated the frustration with his performance in the opening stages of Tuesday’s game.
“Early on, I threw a couple of balls that just don’t need to be thrown,” Ragland said on his early struggles. “I was able to convince myself to just keep playing my game and that eventually stuff is going to through.”
The Zips were quick to turn the mistakes of the ‘Hawks into points, as true freshman quarterback Kato Nelson marched Akron right down the field in six plays, culminating in the elusive freshman’s first career rushing touchdown.
Typically Akron’s backup, Nelson found himself thrust into action in place of senior Thomas Woodson. Woodson, leading the team with 193 passing yards per game, was suspended by Akron due to a violation of team rules, according to a press release from the Akron athletic department.
“He’s a dart,” Martin said of Nelson. “We chased him around. It was like Rocky Balboa chasing that chicken.”
The defense, led by sophomore Doug Costin, struggled at times to get the slippery freshman on the ground, as Nelson frequently escaped what looked like certain sacks.
“Obviously the quarterback was a very dynamic athlete,” Costin said. “We came in with the mindset as long as we keep him in front of us — the first guy might not get him down, but the second guy, third guy has to come in and finish the job.”
Ragland and company were quick to respond, putting together an eight play, 70-yard drive to tie the game at seven apiece. Capping off the equalizing drive was an acrobatic 17-yard touchdown catch by senior receiver Sam Martin in the corner of the end zone.
However, the second half saw a focus on the ground attack, with the bulk of the load falling on redshirt junior running back Kenny Young. Young carried the ball eight times for 70 yards in the first half as Miami exploited giant openings on the edges of Akron’s defense.
One aspect missing in the early stages of Tuesday night’s matchup was junior wide out James Gardner. Eleventh in the nation with 847 receiving yards to go along with nine touchdowns, Gardner was targeted five times in the first half yet was unable to come down with any catches, a far cry from last week’s two-touchdown first half for the Ft. Lauderdale native.
This was exemplified by the tight coverage of the Zips with under a minute to go in the opening half, as the RedHawks consistently looked in the direction of number 81, yet were unable to find him thanks to the Zip defensive backs. As a result, the RedHawks were forced to settle for a 28-yard Sam Sloman field goal to go into the half up 10-7.
Following a lackluster first half performance completing 8-18 passes for 111 yards and a pair of interceptions, Ragland continued to struggle early in the third quarter as the RedHawk offense went three and out in their opening second half drive in which Ragland nearly threw his third interception.
However, following a pair of stops by the RedHawk defense, the Red and White went back to exposing the edges of the Zips defense. Utilizing the speed of Kenny Young to move the ball into Akron territory, Ragland hit Young on a wheel out of the backfield for a 30-yard touchdown to put the ‘Hawks up ten with 6:45 to go in the third quarter.
“He’s special. We try to get the ball as much as we can to him,” Martin said of Young. “He’s a crazy good football player—he’s a crazy good kid and if you knew where he came from and you knew his background and you knew what’s he’s doing academically here and you knew what he’s doing socially here, you would think what he does on the football field is nothing.”
The RedHawk offense was feeding on the energy generated by the Miami “Mob” defense, which found its stride in the second half, beginning to flock to the ball. The defensive line in particular stifled the scrambling Nelson in the second half.
Particularly impressive was Costin. Costin finished the game with three of Miami’s six sacks on the night, making it much easier for the RedHawk defensive backs to cover the pass heavy Akron offense.
“The DB’s love when we do that [pressure quarterback],” Costin said. “Just like that, we love when the DB’s roam on receivers. It goes back and forth, everyone loves it.”
The Red and White defense, surrendering only 18 total yards in the third quarter, set their offense up to pull away late. In their final drive of the third quarter, the ‘Hawks finally found their playmaker on the outside — James Gardner caught two passes for 39 yards on the drive including his tenth touchdown pass on the year to put Miami up 24-7 three fourths of the way through.
“You target a dude like that that many times in the first half, you go into halftime and there’s not even a remote sense of panic or doubt that he [Gardner] isn’t going to come out in the second half and make plays,” Ragland said of his favorite receiver. “Obviously that dude’s a huge target and a huge mismatch.”
After seeing Miami give up a seven play, 85 yard touchdown drive to the Zips early in the fourth, the RedHawk faithful grew uneasy within Yager Stadium, as memories of the Cincinnati meltdown flooded their memories. But, the next time the ‘Hawks defense took the field, they forced Akron to turn it over on downs after a drive lasting four minutes and forty five seconds. That was the nail in the coffin, lifting the home team to a 24-14 victory.
The win moves the Red and White to a record of 4-6 and 3-3 in the MAC while dropping the Zips to 5-5 and 4-2 in the MAC. Tuesday night marks Miami’s first win over Akron in five years, knocking the Zips off the top of the MAC East. The ‘Hawks, though out of contention for a conference title, could still make a postseason appearance should they win out.
“We’ve still got a chance to be pretty good this year,” Martin said. “We’ve got two games left to prove we’re a good team this year.”